Dog days of winter

I grew up with big dogs.  First a boxer, then later a labrador.  Even my sister’s dachshund thought he was a big dog.  Our dogs celebrated the onset of winter with heavy jowled anticipation. They reveled in the first snowfall, and cavorted in the wintry weather until the frost caked their furry flanks and icicles fringed their gleeful faces.  The very thought of dressing a dog in a coat or sweater seemed utterly ridiculous.


How times have changed.


Today I bought a bomber jacket for Gus, my Chihuahua/Brussels Griffon mix.  My Italian Greyhound shivers in indignation if she is asked to go outside without her coat, and Peanut, my four pound no ounces Chihuahua, has her own wardrobe.  Canine cold weather gear is serious business.  Companies like Ruffwear, Outward Hound, and a myriad of others offer countless products to help your pooch stay warm on his winter walks. 


As a veterinarian, hypothermia is something that I see all too often.  I may stifle a snicker as I walk into the exam room to greet a patient bundled up in snowsuit and matching boots, but I’m far more perturbed by the pathetic, trembling, frostbitten bodies of pets unfortunate enough to be left outside and forgotten in the back yard in this unforgiving season.


And cold is not the only danger lurking beyond the twinkling holiday lights.  Indeed the electric extension cords that snake their way across our living rooms can prove fatally fascinating to an inquisitive puppy or kitten.  I have surgically removed strings of Christmas tree lights, tinsel, and ribbon from the intestines of vomiting cats and dogs, and I’ve all too frequently been called upon to induce vomiting in pets that have helped themselves to chocolate, or worse, antifreeze, both of which can kill with stunning swiftness when left untreated.


I’m often amazed by the sheer variety of things that animals will eat.  Holiday plants must appear to them an “all you can eat” salad bar.  Holly and Mistletoe, Lilies and Daffodils can all be toxic to your pet. Even the oily sap and needles of a Christmas fir tree can cause serious problems.  The fir tree oils can be irritating to the mouth and stomach, causing excessive drooling or vomiting, and the tree needles are not easily digested either.  Once ingested they can cause GI irritation, vomiting, gastrointestinal obstruction or puncture.  The much maligned Poinsettia, however, is actually only mildly irritating.  It can cause vomiting, but is unlikely to prove fatal even if a curious pet helps herself to a bellyful.


The food that we intentionally share with our furkids can also be a problem.  Rich, fatty foods can trigger pancreatitis.  Cooked chicken and turkey bones will shatter and may perforate the intestines. Raisins, grapes, onions and garlic can all cause serious problems such as severe anemia, and even kidney failure.   And recently Xylitol, a sweetener often found in sugar free products, has been shown to cause life threatening low blood sugar in pets.


Even safe foods can be an issue.  People pack on the pounds during the winter months, so do our pets.  Decreased activity and increased appetites can lead to an embarrassing waddle to the scale at the next visit to the vet’s office.


Exercise is important for our pets mental and physical wellbeing.  It can be difficult to find the motivation for a stroll down to the local park, or even around the block, when there’s an icy wind whistling down the street, especially when fido slams on the brakes at the front door.  You might even think you are doing her a favor by skipping the trek around the block, but you’ll both be better off if you make the effort.


When you do venture forth, make sure you check your pets feet frequently.  The salt and grit, spread to combat the ice and snow, can be extremely irritating to unprotected paws.  That is why we are seeing so many dogs wearing boots or shoes for their winter walks.  If your dog does go barefoot you should keep both their nails and the hair between and around their pads trimmed.  Short nails reduce the risk of slipping and removing the hair from between the claws prevents buildup of ice balls underfoot.


If all else fails, indoor exercise is also an option.  Small dogs will happily chase a tennis ball around the sofa, big dogs can climb up and down a flight of stairs, and cats will chase a laser pointer for hours on end.


Winter can be dangerous, but if you plan ahead, and use your common sense, it can be a joyful time to share with your furry friends.